American Organist Cameron Carpenter Makes BSO Debut

Mike Lawson • News • December 16, 2016

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Cameron CarpenterVirtuoso American organist Cameron Carpenter makes his BSO subscription series debut in three performances Thursday, January 12-Saturday, January 14, joining the BSO and guest conductor Bramwell Tovey for performances of Terry Riley’s elaborate and wide-ranging 2014 organ concerto, At the Royal Majestic.

Bramwell ToveyThis is the first time the BSO has performed a work by Mr. Riley, a hugely influential American composer known most of all for his seminal work In C, one of the first and most influential pieces of musical minimalism. Mr. Carpenter also joins the orchestra for Barber’s Toccato Festiva, a piece written to demonstrate the wide range of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new organ for its dedication ceremony in 1960. Mr. Tovey closes the program with Elgar’s sweeping Enigma Variations, which depict in music some of the composer’s friends and acquaintances and one of the core works of the symphonic repertoire.

The wealthy Philadelphia arts patron Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist founded the now-famous Curtis Institute of Music, of which Samuel Barber was an early student, and so when the Philadelphia Orchestra needed a new work to celebrate the completion of its new organ (which Zimbalist also paid for), she commissioned Barber to write it. The resulting Toccata Festiva has plenty of moments of bombastic festivity but many striking passages of nuanced and lyrical music as well, bringing forth a dazzling array of timbres and textures in both the organ part and in the orchestra. These are the first BSO performances of the piece.

Terry Riley’s At the Royal Majestic—originally written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to showcase the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s organ, as well as Mr. Carpenter’s immense talent and showmanship—taps into large swaths of American musical vernacular, including gospel, 1930s jazz and pop, ragtime, and blues. The work’s movements are based on three unrelated ideas: the first on Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli’s colored pencil drawing Negro Hall, which imagines what a Negro 1930s dance club in New York might look like; the second on a tower Mr. Riley built in his backyard for lizards that lived there; and the third on the pilgrimage thousands of people take each year to circle Mount Kalish in Tibet in search of spiritual enlightenment and blessings from the Hindu god Shiva.

Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations are at the same time some of the most direct, descriptive works in the repertoire and some of the most mysterious. We know how, when, and why they were composed, we know that each variation is a musical representation of an important person in the composer’s life, and we know the identities of those people (with one exception) as well as to which variation each belongs. But the enigma lurks in the most fundamental aspect of the work. These are, after all, Variations on an Original Theme, and we do not know the theme; there is no melody or musical idea that is called out or is discernable as such. “The ‘Enigma’ I will not explain—it’s ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, Elgar wrote.”Further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played … so the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas the chief character is never on stage.” 

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